Valentino Balboni may be retired from his day job, but he's not slowing down. The 67-year-old who started as a Lamborghini mechanic, then spent the next 40 years as the exotic car company's chief test driver, just kicked off a brand new project. It's called VB, and its first offering is a gorgeous all-titanium exhaust kit to make your Lamborghini Aventador SV evenlouder.
And that should tell you something about Balboni. Even though he's officially retired from his job at Lamborghini, he can't stay away from the company where he spent his entire career.
I got the chance to chat with Balboni at , the Monterey Car Week event dedicated to celebrating the finest and most exotic of Italian classics. Amid a backdrop of hundreds of Italian exotics, including a dozen Miuras in every candy color, Balboni is buoyant and charming, signing autographs, shaking hands, and reminiscing about his early days at Lamborghini. His personality is bright, engaging, and above all, enthusiastic—just as energetic today as he was in that famous Morley Safer 60 Minutes special on Lamborghini from nearly 30 years ago. Every sentence he speaks is radiant with joy and gratitude about how he made his career. Balboni and his cadre of followers all wear polo shirts that say "VALENTINO BALBONI - LAMBORGHINI TEST DRIVER - THE GREATEST JOB IN THE WORLD" across the back in the colors of the Italian flag.
I stole 10 minutes of the master test driver's time for a quick chat. We clamored into an Aventador SV being shown on the Concorso lawn to hide from the crowd. It was the perfect setting to chat with the man who helped shape every Lamborghini supercar for four decades.
Bob Sorokanich: You've just launched VB, making upgraded exhaust systems for the Aventador. Is this the start of a second career for you?
Valentino Balboni: It's a keeping on of a passion, of an activity. It's the pleasure of doing something which people like. It's not a business, it's more of a passion. But it's always a pleasure to do something for Lamborghini, something connected to Lamborghini. All my life was with Lamborghini.
BS: And I have to ask—are you making this exhaust for the Aventador SV because you don't think the car sounds good enough?
VB: [Laughing] No, no. This is only, let's say, an additional touch on a car which is already outstanding. It is a little bit more, something more. But the car is good, and this is an addition, something that you can choose if you want.
BS: An embellishment.
VB: Right. It's a kind of improvement of something which is already extremely good.
BS: We're sitting in an Aventador SV, a naturally-aspirated V12 supercar. It's a very traditional kind of supercar—not a hybrid, not turbocharged. Do you think this kind of car has a chance of staying around?
VB: I have a lot of respect for the modern technology, for the future. But I hope these cars will always keep the personality, and the flavor, of the old times. You see how many Miuras we have here today [at the Concorso Italiano]. I understand, I can see the difference in technology since those cars were built. I think the future will always have something good and positive for car enthusiasts. It will always be improving and changing, and we will still keep loving cars.
BS: What was your favorite era at Lamborghini?
VB: Every day was a new day, from the beginning to the end. I went through all my life with Lamborghini, from a young boy to a man, and then even older. Every day is a good day. Still today after 50 years, I don't get tired of doing what I am doing. Instead of slowing down, I keep doing as much as I can.
BS: It seems like you don't know how to slow down.
VB: I still haven't learned how to slow down.
BS: Outside of Lamborghini, what other automakers are doing things that excite you today?
VB: Every car manufacturer, every exotic manufacturer, is making extremely nice things. I have respect for all of them, but I would not change Lamborghini to be like anybody else. Lamborghini still keeps its own personality. We call it DNA—character and personality. This is very important for a sports car. Even with all this modern technology [gestures at Aventador dashboard], which are extremely important when you have so much horsepower, it still has a personality, a passion.
BS: That's something we worry about—maybe not with supercars, but with normal cars. That concern about cars losing their personality, their uniqueness.
VB: Regular cars I would say they try to have, let's say, a little bit too much of a "normal" aspect. A sports car, Lamborghini, tries to stay on a different level—to be human, to still be a car that must be driven, and one that produces a good feeling and good sensation when driving.
BS: We keep hearing about Lamborghini's plan to make an SUV. Is there a way to make a car like that truly exciting?
VB: Yes I think so. I think it's possible. I remember previous experiences we had with the Lamborghini LM002, developing that car. In those days it was even more difficult and challenging to develop and put on the market a car like that. But I think this may be another option for the future, to have this kind of vehicle to be sold parallel to the exotic cars. A beautiful SUV, powerful, with a 12-cylinder engine, something exciting. I think there's still a lot of room for that. And it becomes something exclusive. Exclusivity is always the most interesting point of a Lamborghini.
BS: When we talk about supercars, you always hear people complaining about the death of the manual transmission. Certainly for the majority of your career, the only way you could get these cars was with a stick shift and a clutch pedal. You look at this car for example...
VB: Unfortunately, when it comes to this point of view, I have to agree. Maybe we are losing this part of the old fashioned personality and character. I am convinced that unfortunately we will slowly—slowly—lose this kind of beautiful thing. I always say I was very lucky to experience, in my lifetime, the best times of the real sports car.
BS: Do you think it's worthwhile, though, to make these cars more accessible? Make it so a normal driver, not an expert, can hop in and drive it?
VB: Definitely, definitely. These modern features definitely make life behind the wheel much easier. But at the same time I would say it also creates a lot of pleasure. It means you can concentrate more on your speed, your turning. You have to think less about downshifting, upshifting, so you can enjoy turning, braking ... you enjoy driving the car in a different way.
BS: What's your favorite car that you helped develop at Lamborghini?
VB: Definitely, from the emotional aspect, the Miura is one of my favorites. That car taught me a lot—I became a test driver with the Miura—and I think it's one of the most emotional cars you can drive.
BS: When you started as a test driver, with the Miura, there were essentially no safety devices. I have to ask: In a car with traction control, stability control, do you turn all of it off?
VB: Normally when I'm by myself I switch everything off. Just to keep the total pleasure of driving the car in my hands.
BS: And what do you drive today?
VB: I drive a Lamborghini Gallardo, two-wheel drive, the car named after me. Lamborghini decided to have a special version of the Gallardo with two-wheel drive, and it was dedicated to my name. Because they wanted to remember the beginning, the origin of Lamborghini, and after so many years of four-wheel drive we went back to two-wheel drive.